Smile, you're on a police camera

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Ted Sullivan
Sunday, March 8, 2009
— Janesville police officers are wearing miniature video cameras on their uniforms to record their encounters with residents, even if they don't know it.

It's legal in Wisconsin, where only one person has to consent to recording a conversation.

And police officials believe it's a tremendous tool when making arrests or traffic stops.

"A lot of officers are telling me that they don't want to be without it," officer Steven Carpenter said. "It's kind of that undisputed witness."

The camera is called a vidmic. It blends into the microphone of the officer's two-way radio. Officers clip it on their uniform.

The gadget can record video, audio and take digital still pictures.

A tool for officers

Officers can use video recordings as evidence. They also can review the video when they write their reports. They no longer have to rely on their memories.

"We can submit those videos to the prosecutor with our reports, and that will give the prosecutor a first-hand look at exactly what was going on," Capt. Danny Davis said.

New officers can review their videos as a training tool. The device could even be stuck around a corner of a room to see whether an armed subject is lurking.

Officials can review videos when a resident complains about an officer. The camera provides undisputed proof of what happened.

"The only people that truly know what happened is the officer and the motorist," Davis said. "It takes away that element of he said/she said."

And the camera can be a deterrent.

One officer recently was dealing with a loud, unruly and profane woman during a call, Carpenter said. The woman settled down after learning the incident was being recorded.

"It de-escalated the situation in a second," Carpenter said. "She felt pretty silly. She was apologetic."

Privacy concerns

Police officials know the cameras might draw criticism and seem like "big brother" is invading the public's rights, Davis said.

The cameras are slightly hidden, and officers aren't obligated to tell people if they're on.

"I can see that maybe there will be a public reaction to this, but once they're out there and people see that is the way we do our business, it will take care of itself," Davis said.

Daniel Blinka, a Marquette University criminal law professor, said the cameras are legal.

"In terms of privacy concerns, there are really none," Blinka said. "Anytime we deal with a police officer, we have no reasonable expectation of privacy."

And the cameras protect the public and police officers.

"What this recording will do is make it easier, not just for the police, but also for the citizen, to prove what exactly happened during the encounter," Blinka said. "It will be interesting to see what effect it will have on the officers' behavior, and I suspect it will be good."

More cameras on horizon

Carpenter suggested the police department purchase the vidmics. He has a technology background and thought they might be helpful.

The police department bought eight cameras for $700 each. Grant money paid for the technology.

"I haven't been without it since probably June," Carpenter said. "Any citizen contact that I have, wherever I'm at, it's with me."

The cameras are the police department's first venture into video. Officers have never had dashboard cameras like other agencies.

Dashboard cameras are only effective on traffic stops, Davis said, and 90 percent of what officers do is away from their patrol cars.

Vidmics go everywhere with the officer. And they will be on from the beginning of an incident to the end, with no break in video, he said. Footage will be saved for a certain period of time to preserve records.

More cameras will likely be purchased in the future, Davis said. The goal is to have enough cameras to cover every officer on shift.

"It just provides all kinds of options," he said. "It's just one more tool we'll put in our toolbox to give the officers what they need."

Last updated: 9:55 am Thursday, December 13, 2012

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